NEW YORK — When the National Endowment for the Arts was established in 1965, organizers had different models to choose from.
They could have looked to the French Ministry of Culture, a cabinet-level institution committed to maintaining France’s cultural heritage. Or they could have copied the generous and government-directed support favored by some Scandinavian countries, or even the state-controlled art of their Cold War rivals: the Soviet Union and China.
But the NEA, which the Trump administration wants to eliminate along with Legal Services Corp., the Institute of Museum and Library Services and dozens of other agencies and programs, developed in uniquely American fashion: diverse and independent, with a significant part of the budget distributed to state and local organizations. It also collaborates with nonprofit and private donors.
“Our system is quite different from any of the other countries,” says Robert L. Lynch, president and CEO of the nonprofit Americans for the Arts, which leads a network of organizations and individuals involved in the arts. “Most of the other countries use a subsidy system with few or any other sources of funding.”
“I love the NEA model because it was founded on a government-private giving system, and nothing succeeds like having buy-in from the various communities,” says actress Jane Alexander, who served as NEA chair from 1993-97. “I’m a resident of Canada and while there’s a lot of support for the arts it can be hard to get a project off the ground because there’s not a lot of incentive for private giving.”
From the beginning, the endowment was rooted in American political culture. It was founded when faith in government was high and when advocating for the arts was a popular position for an elected official. Democratic President Lyndon Johnson, elected in a landslide in 1964, had strong public backing to fulfill the goals of the assassinated John F. Kennedy. And the economic expansion of the post-World War II era had led to a growing appetite for self-improvement and increased money and leisure time for artistic interests.
“There wasn’t this feeling we needed to rescue the arts,” says Mark Bauerlein, an English professor at Emory University and a former NEA official who helped write and edit an NEA history that covered the endowment’s years from 1965-2008. “We hear that now a lot, but the original point was more along the lines of we have the momentum and we should take it to the next level.”
Dana Gioia, who headed the NEA from 2003-2009, says the endowment has managed to use relatively little money to build a nationwide arts network. But the NEA has endured contentious moments, rooted in a long-term debate over how and whether governments should fund the arts. Conservatives have objected to some of the art being supported — notably graphic photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe and a handful of other works in the 1980s — and argued that the government shouldn’t interfere in the marketplace. Some on the left have worried that accepting money from the government risked compromising one’s vision, especially after the NEA began asking grant recipients to sign a “decency” clause in the wake of the Mapplethorpe controversy.
A 1963 report commissioned by the Kennedy administration, “The Arts and the National Government,” acknowledged that “There will always remain those who feel that art and government should exist in different spheres, having nothing to do with each other.”
“Although government’s role in the arts must always remain peripheral, with individual creativity and private support being central, there is no reason why the things which the government can properly do in this field should not be done confidently and expertly,” the report reads.
The U.S. government has had a sporadic relationship with the cultural community. While Thomas Jefferson and other founders had strong beliefs in the value of art, there were long periods when Washington had little involvement, especially in the 19th century. In the 1930s, New Deal officials established the Works Project Administration, which supported everything from murals and theatrical productions to historical guidebooks. But the WPA was based more on job creation than on cultural patronage. “Hell, they’ve got to eat just like other people,” New Deal administrator Harry Hopkins said of artists who benefited.
The 1963 government report cited numerous ways a national agency was needed. Interest in the arts was growing throughout the country but many regions remained underserved and local cultural centers lacked money and coordination with centers elsewhere. And Washington’s support for the arts was centered on the capitol itself. “Stimulating and supporting the arts throughout the country” would be an ideal mission for a new federal program.
Bauerlein, Gioia and others who have served at the NEA wish the system could be better funded — France and Germany and other countries spend far more per capita than the U.S. on the arts— but consider it both practical and effective. Grants have been distributed to all congressional districts, supporting everything from community theaters to the American Film Institute, and even conservatives such as Trump supporter Mike Huckabee want the NEA saved. And an institution like the French ministry might conflict with the NEA’s mission to honor the country’s “multicultural artistic heritage.”
“France seems to have a more unified sense of French culture, while the U.S. is a larger and more diverse nation,” says Donna Binkiewicz, a history professor at California State University, Long Beach, and author of “Federalizing the Muse: United States Arts Policy and the National Endowment for the Arts,” which came out in 2004.
“It would be more difficult to organize such an effort here. I also don’t think we have the political will for such an enterprise. The NEA now functions as an … agency distributing money to states in a way that seems more acceptable for Americans.”